HAVANA (AP) — The secretary-general of the Organization of American States arrived in Cuba on Monday to attend a regional summit, in an unusual encounter 52 years after Cuba was kicked out of the regional bloc.
Jose Miguel Insulza, a Chilean, was attending as an observer, so there was no official access to his arrival as was the case with visiting foreign ministers and heads of state. But Cuban officials confirmed his presence on the island to The Associated Press.
Hugo Zela, Insulza's chief of staff, said the OAS, which was formed in 1948, has no record of a secretary-general visiting Cuba.
Tensions between Cuba and the OAS began shortly after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, when Washington put pressure on Fidel Castro's nascent Communist government through the organization.
Cuba was suspended from the bloc in 1962 at the height of the Cold War and many other nations turned their backs on Havana, with Mexico a notable exception.
By the dawn of the 21st century and with the Cold War nearly two decades in the rear-view mirror, some countries — particularly Venezuela under the late President Hugo Chavez, who called Castro a friend and mentor — began pushing for Cuba's reintegration into the hemispheric community.
In 2009 the OAS ended Cuba's suspension with the consent of Washington, which had been hesitant at first. But Havana balked at rejoining the bloc it sees as obeying U.S. interests.
"Cuba's position toward the OAS remains the same: We will not return," Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said at the summit. "It has negative historical baggage as an instrument of domination by the United States that cannot be resolved through any reform."
Nonetheless, Rodriguez said inviting Insulza to the CELAC summit was done out of "courtesy."
The CELAC was formed in 2011 and includes all the Western Hemisphere's nations except Canada and the United States.
"It should replace within a short time the OAS, that institution that did so much harm to integration," Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Roberto Patino said Monday.
Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuba analyst and lecturer at the University of Denver, said the CELAC's creation puts pressure on the OAS to remain relevant.
"The problems of the OAS are due to the fact that inter-American multilateralism has not been updated in respect to the changes in politics and balance of power that have taken place in (the region) and beyond as part of the rise of the global south," Lopez-Levy said.
"The second summit of the CELAC in Havana pours salt on that wound," he added.
For decades the argument for excluding Cuba from the OAS was its closed, single-party system. Havana has little tolerance for internal opposition and routinely harasses dissidents whom it officially labels treasonous "mercenaries."
Insulza has come under criticism particularly from the Cuban exile community for not scheduling meetings with island dissidents during the trip, in order to avoid making the summit hosts uncomfortable.
"It's startling," said Elizardo Sanchez, a nongovernmental human rights monitor in Cuba. "It's a little surprising because the OAS usually recognizes the human rights NGOs."
Cuban dissidents have complained about increased harassment and detentions in the days leading up to and during the summit. Some said they were prevented from holding an alternative forum, while others claimed to be under effective house arrest.
Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP